Tiernach looked up at the nobles seated in the senate chamber. Concern, confusion, and worry seemed to be the predominant expressions amidst the crowd. Well, that was probably good, he mused. Worried people were easier to manipulate, and the more the senators felt that events were slipping from their control, the more likely they were to cling to any thread of normality. It was time to reassure them that the king's rule was continuing – as normal.
Taking a deep breath, Tiernach looked up at the rising ranks of richly attired noblemen around him, aware that the light at this time of day would highlight the lines of sadness on his face as the sun shone through the ornate stained glass windows along the south-east wall.
“My lords,” he began, a catch in his voice. He cleared his throat and began again. “My lords, and ladies. You have, I am sure, been made aware of the happenings of the past few days. Indeed, any of you who have passed the palace gates cannot fail to have seen the ruined embers of the east wing. I can scarcely believe that it appears to have been a fire set by, or on behalf of, my own brother Kaja.
“As you know, he recently challenged the king's orders, even in the face of my personal assurance, and his majesty's verified signature and seal.” Tiernach sighed, falling quiet for a moment, his gaze dropping to the lectern for several seconds before he spoke again. “I don't really blame him for that. I'd be lying if I said I don't think the orders we must carry out are... somewhat harsh. But I do feel they are necessary, and since it is my duty to obey them I had no choice but to place my brother under guard. I had hoped... ah, I had hoped that a few days and a healthy dose of debate and reason, would see an end to the matter.
“The ashes of our palace rather testify to my failure, and for that, my lords and ladies, I apologise. I underestimated my brother's passion, his anger, and his disregard for the hundreds of years of history the stones and timbers of the palace have overseen. I have allowed him, or his accomplices, to destroy a large fraction of a national treasure, and for that I am truly sorry.”
“Milord, you can hardly be held accountable for the actions of your brother,” a bearded man to his left suggested softly in the quiet that followed Tiernach's statement. “You could not have known.”
“Aye, the fault is not yours, Prince Tiernach,” a lutrani woman reassured. “Blame Prince Kaja if you will, but not yourself!” Several other voices followed with similar feelings of support and directed condemnation.
Tiernach bowed his head humbly. “I thank you, my lords and ladies,” he said, raising his gaze to the senate. “And I would like to assure you that our palace, as a national monument, will not be allowed to remain in its present sorry state for long. We will rebuild, just as we will rebuild every town and village that has suffered as a result of our present state of war. As for Kaja... I am a firm believer in family values. None are dearer to me than my father, my brother, and my sister... but nobody in this kingdom is above the law. Refusing to obey the king's orders, having his supporters break into the palace and commit arson, fleeing custody... these are acts of treason, and they cannot go unpunished. He will be found, he will be captured, and if necessary... if necessary he will be imprisoned until such a time as his loyalty is to the king. Nobody is above the law,” he repeated.
“And that includes those who have aided my brother in his escape, perhaps willing participants, perhaps mere victims of the campaign of misinformation and lies that has led to the empty seats I see among you.”
A few whispers broke out as eyes turned to the dozen gaps dotted around the semicircles of plush seats.
“It is foolish, isn't it?” Tiernach asked the room. “How somehow our attention has been turned thusly in a time of war? How when we should be looking to the attack from outside, we suddenly become tied up in internal affairs. Perhaps you see now a glimpse of the minds of our enemies. Seeds of chaos and dissension have been sown. It is up to us, lords and ladies, to ensure that they do not bear fruit. I ask you now; pay no heed to whispers and propaganda you may hear. Do not trust the lies and the falsehoods that are muttered from the shadows. Believe in the king, believe in his word and his judgement, for he has never led us astray. Stand beside me, stand beside the king, stand united and stand strong!”
A scattered applause began at the back of the chamber, swelling quickly until half of those present were on their feet.
“Thank you, my lords and ladies,” Tiernach motioned with his hands for calm. “I thank you deeply for your support. Together, we will overcome our enemies from without, and our minor squabbles within. I am going to issue,” he raised a scroll of parchment in one hand. “A warrant for the arrest and detainment of my brother, Prince Kaja, and any found to be aid or accomplice to him.
“I must emphasise that this warrant is merely for my brother's capture and return. No harm is to befall him, for while his actions may speak against him, I cannot doubt that in his heart, he believes that they are justified. He has been... foolish. Very foolish. I fear that he has coerced others into following him in his foolishness, and I am very angry with him – but that does not change that we all know him to be of good character and kind heart, and I beg your indulgence in this, lords and ladies. Publish copies of this warrant to your peacekeeping forces. Offer rewards for information. Help me to find my brother, help me to prove the strength of our kingdom when we act upon the king's will. Help me bring him back. Let us not allow him to walk away into darkness, but help him to return to stand with us once more.”
The applause was gentler this time, but lasted longer, many of the nobles smiling and nodding their approval. Tiernach was sounding a lot more like his father's son today. Things would surely be back to normal soon.
The flash of light from the leafy shadows was as brilliant as it was unexpected. For a second, perhaps two, a patch of ferns radiated an intense blue, filtering through the green leaves and casting shadows up onto the undersides of the sunlit canopy above. The birdsong that had previously filled the grove quieted for a moment, each creature seeming to hold its breath as it waited for something to happen... but nothing did. Or at least, nothing exciting beyond a muffled grunt of pain and a rustling of leaves as a tall, richly dressed leonin rolled out of the bracken. It didn't take very long for the normal occupants of the glade to conclude he wasn't a threat and continue about their chirruping, hooting, and fluttering.
Gritting his teeth against the flaring pain, Tiernach dug his fingers into the dirt, fighting the urge to cry out. To one side, the fragment of the Dragon Staff shimmered in the dappled sunlight where it had fallen from his grasp, its glittering facets reflecting the surrounding forest at unnatural angles.
With a curse, Tiernach spat onto the leafy ground. Yes, he had thought something might be bleeding from the way he felt, but apparently not severely. He pushed himself back onto his knees as the shocking pain faded. Stupid. The spell description had warned of discomfort, but that had been far beyond his expectations. He would not make that error again.
His breathing slowing, the leonin raised his head to survey the sunlit woodland. Clearly the spell had worked then, for scant seconds ago he had been in his workshop.
Instant travel. The ability to transport oneself between locations in a heartbeat, and the dream of magi for centuries. Apparently a dream not perfected, at least not by any writer in Tiernach’s collection. He spat again, noticing gratefully that whatever was bleeding had stopped. And it looked like everything was where it should, and now that the pain of the spell had faded he felt fairly normal. Good, perhaps there was some use in the experiment after all – if it could be made to work without the assistance of the Dragon Staff. He scooped up the fragment from the ground, dropping it into an inner pocket. Now, where was he? He looked around for a moment, before rising to his feet and heading towards where the forest thinned out and a patch of blue sky was visible between the tree trunks.
Feline lips curled upwards in a thin smile of satisfaction as he emerged into the sunlight. A little off target, but very close relative to the distance travelled. To the north, the craggy hills and cliffs of the highlands, the ground rising unevenly towards the horizon. And there, a mile or so away, his destination; Chasmhold.
Once the greatest and most northerly fortress in Lordenor, the great fortress loomed over the surrounding lands. Spanning across the Chasmdeep ravine, it sat solidly between the rising bluffs on either side, its arching bridge the only route in or out of the highlands for many leagues around. A masterpiece of engineering, thousands of tons of solid stone spanned the gap between the two halves of the fortress, with no intermediate support, those walking across the great arch having an uninterrupted view to the brisk river that flowed along the bottom of the canyon.
Centuries ago, Chasmhold had been the centre of many a battle, been manned by thousands of troops loyal to the kingdom, proud to defend their homelands against the nomadic, barbarian tribes of the north. From the tops of the castle’s great ramparts, lookouts had given warnings of barbarian gatherings still miles away, sending the defenders scrambling to man their posts. From the vantage point of the arching Chasmspan, they had rained arrows and projectiles upon those underneath, defying once again an attempt to pass into the green shires of the kingdom beyond.
So strong had been the castle, and so determined its defenders, that in the end only one thing had been able to breach its walls. Peace.
In an unprecedented move, a young Northland warrior by the name of Bane Clawhide (the fourth) had carried before the gates of Chasmhold the flag of truce, claiming to represent his tribe’s desire to bring an end to the fighting. Though sceptical, the commander had invited him inside on the condition that he be alone and unarmed. It was the greatest, and last mistake of his career.
Unknown to the soldiers in the castle, but quite known to Bane, he had brought among them a plague that had been ravaging the highlands. Knowing that his time was short, knowing that to return to his tribe would be to bring death upon them, he had seized upon his last chance for glory. Not the honourable warrior’s death that the Northlanders desired, but a victory against so many foes ensured Bane his place in song and memory as the wisest of his line. It also ensured that nobody from Lordenor was willing to set foot inside the fortress again for several lifetimes.
It was a scant victory for Bane’s people. The plague continued unchecked across the northern highlands for years after his death, much to the relief of Lordenor, who had expected a barbarian outpouring and instead had a quiet and prosperous decade.
Tiernach, naturally, did not hold any superstitions relating to a thousand year plague, or to the ill omens of having to remove the bones of those ancient defenders, and had moved the Brotherhood of the Eye into the stronghold at first opportunity. There had been a small barbarian camp to reckon with, but as most such encounters went there had been a negotiable price for truce, and now the Brotherhood had both space and manpower to pursue their task.
As Tiernach swept in through the front gate, he glanced at the guard. Large even for a leonin, he bore all the qualities that the Northlanders prized – heavy muscles that were clearly outlined beneath tawny fur, a solid jaw and sharp, keen eyes that met Tiernach’s without the slightest sign of fear. An odd contrast between the two of them, Tiernach thought to himself. He the shorter by half an ear, the slimmer by a hand span, yet dressed in fine cloth while this barbarian Northlander wore only rough leather leggings and jerkin, with crudely made boots that didn’t quite fit properly. Held loosely in one hand, a massive battle axe.
At least, Tiernach noted with a twitch of one eyebrow, they had been trained to salute.
It was only the wealth that the Brotherhood had brought that kept the barbarians polite, Tiernach knew. Though the Northland tribesmen shared a love of steel and of crafted metal, the highlands were neither rich in ore nor in those prepared to take the time to properly smelt it. When the Brotherhood had arrived bearing gold, and steel, and the promise of battle in exchange for loyalty, it had taken remarkably little time to persuade the inhabitants of Chasmhold to join their cause. Here, at last, was a chance to indulge the centuries old enmity between the barbarians and Lordenor, a chance for glory and power.
The daylight assassination of the local chief – a rather nasty surprise arranged by Katrina, involving drugged ale and a poison dagger – had probably helped as well. Men of the Northland tribes were used to the rule of the strongest, and none of them even questioned her right to claim leadership as their previous chief gurgled his life away on the courtyard stones.
Necessary savages, Tiernach was prepared to admit, but savages nonetheless, and he had little care for them. It would have helped if only they could be persuaded that washing would not make them lesser warriors. His lip curled disdainfully as he passed the guard, proceeding into the outer courtyard.
Around him, the great walls echoed to the sound of footfalls and movement as a handful of people scurried back and forth along the walkways above the great pits below. Once designed as an area for the drilling of troops, the courtyard had converted quite efficiently to its new purpose. Now its circling walls towered higher than ever above the ground within, the digging crews having removed hundreds of tons of earth and rock to make the four huge pits that spanned the entire area.
Between each trench, a solid wall of earth ten yards in width, and above each a heavy lattice of steel bars. Massive winches had been erected upon giant gantries overhead, heavy chains descending to provide the enormous strength necessary to lift so many tons of shining metal. To one end of the nearest trench, a soldier in the uniform of a Lordenor sergeant – with the addition of black leather shoulder pads, upon each of which was embossed a crimson circle. The mark of the Brotherhood. So it had come to this, then, Tiernach thought somewhat bitterly. Even as he sought to swell the ranks of the Brotherhood by other means, they went behind his back to steal his own men. So be it.
“Open it,” he growled, walking towards the sergeant, looking down at the iron grid over the pit.
“Milord,” the man saluted, before turning to bark the order loudly across the courtyard. People came running from all directions, answering the summons with swift efficiency. Metal groaned under the strain as the giant chains were hauled over their ratchets, lifting the bars just enough for Tiernach descend into the pit via the ramp at the end. Behind him, he sensed several people looking at his back in concern and anticipation. None but Tiernach had ever dared enter the pit, and with good reason.
“There is an island four hundred and twenty one miles north west of this point. You will take me to it,” Tiernach stated calmly, his eyes glittering in the sunlight that filtered through the grid overhead.
The red dragon gazed back at him. Even lying down, the top of her scaled head was on a level with Tiernach’s waist, but the orange eyes were dulled and placid. Around her neck, the dark band of the collar – the one thing that was keeping Tiernach alive. Despite the lack of motion, Tiernach felt certain he saw the faintest crease of a frown upon her scaled brow.
“Speak,” he told her.
“That island is... dangerous,” the dragon said slowly, dreamily. “We should... not go there.”
“That is not your choice,” Tiernach said.
“What do you know of the island?” the leonin asked, curious.
“It is an... island of fire. The ground... melts... it is hot.”
“Can you withstand it?”
“Of course,” only the faintest note of surprise could be made out in the dragon’s voice, but Tiernach caught it none the less.
“Do you know why I wish to go there.”
“You wish... more of what you carry...”
Tiernach’s eyes narrowed, his hand instinctively closing around the fragment of the Dragon Staff that he had under his coat. “You know the location of other fragments?”
“I do not,” the dragon shook her head.
“But you knew of the one there.”
“The island is not... friendly to your kind. It has no value and is… unsustainable. You could have no other… reason to travel there.”
Tiernach glared up at the dragon, at the orange eyes that didn’t quite seem to be focussed upon him. Could she be withholding information? It wasn’t impossible, he thought. The Dragon Staff had the power to force a dragon’s actions, to dull its mind and make it compliant, but its power most likely didn’t reach beyond the physical. But then, the dragons had vanished with the destruction of the staff, how could she know anything about the locations of the fragments? There was no point in forcing further speech out of her on the matter.
“Where can I find others of your kind?” he asked instead, the thought dawning that this may be something she might know about. “Beyond those who were sealed in the cavern with you?”
“If you do not know already, I cannot help you,” the dragon told him.
“Explain,” Tiernach said softly, withdrawing the fragment of stone from his pocket.
“Since you cannot find my kin, I must assume they have chosen to hide from you... yet this is an event of which I was unaware. I can tell you nothing about that which transpired after my imprisonment.”
That was annoyingly logical, Tiernach thought, his feline tail lashing side to side in agitation for a moment before he calmed himself. There was never sense in arguing with the truth.
“Tell me about your city,” he said, deciding on a different track.
“City?” the dragon queried.
“We both know that it existed in your time,” the leonin pressed, gripping the fragment tightly in his hand. “You might as well answer honestly. I want to know where it was, I want to see what remains of it now.”
“I...” the dragon’s eyes closed. “I do not... know...”
“You will tell me!” the feline demanded.
Shifting slightly, the dragon raked the ground with her great claws. She shook her head, the shining metal of the collar glinting in the torchlight.
Tiernach focussed his will upon the stone fragment in his hand, ordering it to calm the dragon, to unlock her mind to him. He felt it warm in his grasp, seeming to emit a hum that he felt in his bones rather than heard.
The dragon quieted, but her eyes were still open as her great head dropped to the ground, watching him.
“It does not matter,” Tiernach told her. “You and the other are sufficient to serve me for now. Four of you will be sufficient to conquer the world. We can discuss things afterwards.”
“I understand,” the dragon answered simply.
Tiernach frowned, not quite sure if he preferred the dragon this docile or not. Walking forwards, he grabbed the side of the saddle upon the creature’s back and hoisted himself upwards.
The dragon had been right, Tiernach realised. It was hot. As they approached from the air – a journey that had taken even the dragon’s mighty wings almost a day – he could see that the entire island seemed to be wreathed in smoke. Thick columns of sulphurous smelling gas and ash belched from a deep crack the side of one of the three mountains that made up the small landmass. If there was such a thing as a portal to the underworld, he thought with an uncharacteristic shiver, that smoking aperture was surely it.
A stream of glowing orange poured from the crack, running down the flank of the mountain, turning the air above into shimmering curtain of heat, the breath of some great demon of the deep earth.
“It is dangerous...” the dragon informed him as she spiralled around the black peaks. “The island is... awake.”
“Understood,” Tiernach growled. “Where is it?”
“I see it,” the dragon said. “Behind the third peak.”
“Take me to it.”
“As you wish.” The dragon dipped her head, spiralling lower, avoiding the poisonous fumes, swooping down to alight upon the black rock.
Tiernach climbed down, stretching his legs for a moment before looking around. A layer of black ash coated rocks that gave the appearance of having flowed into their present positions, with rounded, rolling shapes that bore neither plant, moss, or lichen upon their dark surfaces. It was utterly desolate and lifeless.
“Where?” he asked.
The dragon paused before replying, so much so that Tiernach was about to reach for his fragment of the staff when she finally spoke.
Tiernach’s eyes narrowed. “Beneath what?”
“Here,” the dragon indicated the ground in front of her.
The leonin growled. Well, he had expected something like this might happen. The only reason he had known about this fragment was due to an ancient text, written by a mage of long ago who located a fragment of the stone by accident. Realising at last its power, he had disposed of it as far from civilisation as he could, washing his hands of the matter and hoping, perhaps, that the fragment would be destroyed by the heat of the mountain. He pulled the pickaxe from the dragon’s saddle, then looked again at the ground with sudden suspicion. Kicking his boot through the loose pebbles and ash, he swore as it scraped solid black rock.
“I cannot dig through this,” he glared at the dragon, who remained apparently uninterested, watching the column of black smoke rising over his shoulder.
“But you can,” Tiernach said. “Melt it. Do not harm the fragment.”
The dragon sighed, her eyes flashing slightly, and once again Tiernach wondered just how deep his control over her ran. Had she been hoping he wouldn’t ask, and thus would have remained frustrated? What exactly was going on in the mind behind that scaled brow? Were her thoughts truly fogged and muddied by the collar, or did it simply give her that outward appearance? For all he knew she was mentally running through a hundred scenarios in which she dismembered and ate him.
He stepped back as the dragon studied the ground for several seconds, then placed one great forefoot against the rock, claws scraping through the ash until they contacted the ancient lava beneath. She didn't speak, and nor had Tiernach expected her to. Words were a focus for magical energy, a trick used by apprentices and lesser mages to order their thoughts and direct their minds upon the task. If he himself rarely had cause to speak a spell aloud, what possible cause could there be for a dragon to do so? It occurred to him that if ever he did find a spell that caused a dragon to speak aloud, it would probably be wise to have it cancel the casting, less unexpected and potentially titanic consequences be unleashed…
Several moments passed, then there came a deep thrum from somewhere under his feet, a shiver like the heartbeat of a buried giant.
Cracks radiated outwards from under the dragon's forefoot as if the surface were being thrust upwards. The rock began to glow, shifting, melting, swirling around a centre of a circle about ten feet wide, centred upon the tip of her largest claw. She jerked her head, and the liquid rock rushed skywards in a wave, cresting in the air before showering down as a glowing rain as Tiernach dived for cover underneath her body.
“You...” Tiernach growled, angry at himself for giving her such an opportunity even as he marvelled at her ability to find loopholes in his instructions. “Will never do anything that endangers me again,” he said, ensuring to make it an explicit order.
“I understand,” the dragon blinked slowly as small pieces of superheated stone rolled off her impervious hide. “You should have moved away sooner. I thought you knew.”
Was that amusement in her eyes? Tiernach glared at her for a moment, then looked down into the centre of the depression left by the dragon’s magic.
There it was! Amid the rapidly cooling clumps of now semi-liquid rock, his prize glittered, clean and undamaged. Even from a distance, it looked as pristine as the fragment in his hand, its powerful enchantments having guarded it from the elements for many hundreds of years.
Tiernach paced around the perimeter of the hole for several hours, waiting until the rock stopped smouldering before cautiously stepping down into the crater. Behind him, the dragon stood quietly, motionless but for her breathing.
“Now...” he donned a pair of thick leather gloves, and reached for the stone fragment, holding it up to the sky, marvelling at the way the light seemed to flow along the lettering carved into its surface. “Yes. Excellent. Do you see, dragon? Do you see this?” he held it high above his head as he climbed from the still steaming crater.
“I see, young one.”
“Do you understand now that my plan will succeed?”
The dragon remained silent, regarding him expressionlessly. Thoughtfully, he sat down on an outcropping of rock and looked at her. As large as the proverbial house and then some, he knew her body alone had the strength to flatten cities. The shimmering scales, as hard as the strongest armour, would turn any conventional weapon. But it was not the body that made the dragons truly powerful, not the mighty strength of bone and sinew, but the far greater strength of the mind, the natural and flawless grasp of the laws of nature that made them so proficient at controlling the magus lumen, at harnessing that ethereal power to do their bidding.
As she was, collared, and controlled, only a fraction of her potential could be accessed. The strength could be harnessed, the magic could be tapped, but the intelligence, the knowledge... they had to be given freely. Shattered and broken, the dragon staff did not have the power to reach deeply into her mind.
“Do you understand that whether or not you resist me, the outcome will be the same?” Tiernach said quietly, gazing up at her. “Why do you fight me? You are powerful, as am I. Together, as partners, we could be more powerful still. We could take control over this world, we could mould it into a better, ordered, more productive society. In time, people might even learn to love you, rather than fear you as they would now. Does that not sound preferable? Would you not prefer to work with me, voluntarily, of your own will?”
“No.” The answer was so simple that it made Tiernach blink a few times before he regained his track.
“Why?” he asked. “You and I could rule this world. You know we have that power between us.”
The dragon stayed silent for so long that Tiernach began wrapping the fragment of the staff carefully, preparing to hide it at the bottom of his bag, where he would not be tempted by it. It's power, it's knowledge were there for the taking... but it was risky. The fragmented spellpaths meant it was both erratic and dangerous, its behaviour unpredictable. It would challenge his right to control it, and Tiernach wasn't sure whether there would be restrictions on how it might do so. There would be time later to accept and overcome that challenge, but not now. Not in this place far from home.
“You cannot rule the world. You are Tyrandius’ servant.”
A chill ran down Tiernach’s spine. Putting the silk wrapped fragment down, he stood slowly.
“What do you know of that?” he hissed, turning to face the dragon.
For a moment, the orange eyes seemed to burn with hatred. “Tyrandius is an old enemy of my kind. I cannot mistake his hand overshadowing yours.”
She seemed to be speaking more freely, Tiernach realised. Perhaps because he had asked her an open question, perhaps... his fingers closed over the fragment in his pocket.
“Nobody overshadows me,” the leonin growled.
“You speak from pride, not knowledge,” the huge head shook slowly.
“I speak from power!” As Tiernach’s eyes flashed, it was as if the dark smoke that issued from the mountain behind him pulled a veil across the sun, darkening the island, his voice echoing across the black rocks. “A power you well know, dragon!” Red light welled from between his fingers as he raised the fragment over his head and the dragon staggered as if pressed upon by a great weight, her claws skidding through the black ash as her body scraped the ground.
“Do not mistake me,” Tiernach growled, striding to stand within inches of her head as her chin dug into the dirt. “Tyrandius disgusts me. His methods, his goals, his desires, could not be further from mine. He is my tool. I use him for his knowledge.”
Black ash coated the dragon's glittering red scales as she grovelled against the ground. When she next spoke, it was not in an angry tone rife with hate, nor the expressionless, flat voice that the staff forced upon her. Instead, her voice carried with it a deep sadness, a profound pity. “You do not know. You are so young. I am so sorry for you.”
Anger flared within Tiernach.
“You dare to pity me? You dare to do this?” His hand tightened about the stone and the dragon’s back arched in agony, the great feet scrabbling across the black ground. “You, who are bound by my magic, compelled to do my will? You who would fly into the storm until the lightning take your wings, because I wish it so? You, who if I commanded, would dive into the ocean until the depths crush you? You who have no power at all, you dare to pity me?” The last words were an anguished shout.
Panting, glaring at the dragon as she writhed on the ground in front of him, Tiernach held the fragment up before her orange eyes for several long seconds before spitting out a word of magic to release the spell, the light from the stone fragment fading like cooling coals.
Taking several long breaths, Tiernach felt his anger recede as he watched her shivering on the ground, orange eyes tight closed, twisted limbs relaxing as her crimson flanks heaved.
“I take no pleasure in humbling you,” he said quietly, bowing his head. “I do what I do because I must, and I have no wish to cause you pain – but do not ever speak to me in that way again. Understand that what occurs is by my plan and desire. Accept that, submit to my will, follow my instructions and trust my judgement, and I will have no cause to harm you. You still have the option to assist me voluntarily.” He looked away, eyeing the column of poisonous smoke that rose from the nearby mountain.
“We will leave, soon,” he told her. “Recover your strength and be ready to fly.”
From deep in the shadows of a rickety barn doorway, the brigadier scanned the night sky. A cold north wind ruffled his sleek brown fur, rustling the straw and loose boards of the ancient building. Here and there, moonlight shone through the gaps in the ceiling. Fifty yards away, an abandoned farmhouse sat dark and silent in the night, the collapsed remains of its roof in silhouette against the stars.
“Is it clear?” Kaja’s hushed voice came from behind him, and the lutrani nodded.
“It seems so, Highness. If it follows the pattern, it will be back in two hours. If we are swift, we can make Whitescar forest before it returns. It won’t be able to track us under cover of the trees.”
“Right,” Kaja nodded. “Where the hell did that thing come from, anyway?” he asked suddenly, and with anger. “It must belong to someone, it can't be an accident that it's been hovering around us for the last two days!”
The brigadier just shook his head sadly, every bit as bewildered as his prince. Sighing, the leonin turned and went back into the barn, heading for a deep pile of straw in one of the stalls. “Alley?” he said quietly, kneeling down next to Aleana’s sleeping form, holding his lamp to one side. “Alley? Wake up, we have to go.”
Aleana blinked as he shook her gently. “Mmm? Go? It’s still dark.”
“I know, but the dragon’s moved on and we have to go too. Brig says we can make the forest before it comes back.”
“All right,” Aleana nodded, sitting up.
Kaja stood and leaned over the wall to peer into the next stall. The tired wooden planks gave a weary creak and he quickly took his weight off them again. “Kennin?”
“I’m awake, milord,” the vulpani answered, appearing around the corner, brushing bits of straw and dirt off his jacket. He looked tired – none of them had slept well of late – but determined.
“Good man,” Kaja nodded, looking up at the sound of leather and buckles swishing and jingling as the brigadier harnessed the horses onto the carriage once more. The hinges on the aged barn doors gave an alarming creak as Kaja helped the lutrani to shove them open, and Aleana hesitated in climbing into the carriage, as if worried the noise might alert their pursuer.
“It's all right, milady,” Kennin said softly, offering his hand as support. “If the brigadier says it's safe, then I'm sure it is.”
“I know,” Aleana nodded, grabbing the handles on either side of the door and hoisting herself up unassisted – though discovering yet again that vehicles designed for leonin did have a tendency to be abominably oversized for those built to a lesser scale. Kennin waited for Kaja to return, then closed the door quietly behind him before mounting his own horse.
“Ready, Highnesses?” the brigadier called back into the carriage as he climbed into the driver's seat. Without actually waiting for a response, knowing that time was pressing, he gave a flick of the reins, urging the horses out of the barn, and swiftly set them into a steady trot as Kennin kept pace beside them.
The road they followed was rough, and ill maintained, a sacrifice that the brigadier deemed necessary in order to keep them away from the main routes which would surely be the focus of the dragon’s search. It was true, he reflected, that he had no actual evidence that it was searching for them, but under the circumstances it seemed extremely stupid to assume otherwise. The penalty of a delaying their journey was far less than of being spotted by a hostile dragon.
“Whitescar’s about two miles over the next hill,” Kennin said about an hour and a half later as he brought his horse cantering back from further along the road.
“Will we make it?” Kaja leaned out of the carriage.
“Hopefully,” the brigadier nodded grimly. He urged the horses to a slightly faster pace, but resisted the desire to push them into a gallop. They’d been working hard the last couple of days with little rest and poor food, and both were looking weary.
Reaching the brow of the hill, they looked down the incline towards Whitescar forest, which lay like a dark blanket upon the moonlit grasslands before it. Here and there, small clumps of trees dotted the downward slope. To the north end of the forest, a great hill rose high above the surrounding land, its chalky southern face shining bluish white in the moonlight. Heading south, the forest thinned towards the edge of Whitescar cliff, along whose base ran Whitewater river.
“It’s beautiful,” Aleana said, looking out across the darkened landscape.
“Aye, milady,” Kennin smiled, but his expression faltered a moment later. “But that isn’t!” he warned, pointing to the sky behind them.
The brigadier followed the gesture and swore. “Move!” he flicked the reins hard, pushing the tiring horses to a faster pace.
Behind them, the dragon soared through the sky, gliding south west at an unhurried pace. Although the great creature showed little signs of tiredness, its rider yawned, raising a hand to shield its mouth from the biting wind while staring listlessly down at the ground below. Make this the last pass, maybe... some sleep might – there! That moving shadow in the roadway! What was that? With a creak of vast leathery wings, the rider urged the giant mount into a change of direction and they swooped groundwards.
“It’s seen us!” Kaja shouted, leaning out of the window as the carriage thundered down the road. “Move it Brig Riv!”
“Don’t tell me, tell the horses!” the lutrani snapped.
Kaja looked for a moment as if he was about to do just that, his hand on the door handle.
“Kaj!” Aleana warned him sharply, and he stopped.
Still urging the horses on, the brigadier glanced over his shoulder. For a moment, he couldn’t see any pursuit, but then the slowly drifting clouds moved away from the moon, and the dragon shone silvery white in its light. It was thoroughly immense, a body twice as long as the carriage, a long sinuous neck and tail doubling that again. The horned head and sharp toothed mouth looked every bit as capable of swallowing a person whole as legend suggested a dragon would be. Dark bands ran across the shimmering scales over its chest, looping up onto its back where a darker shape could be made out.
“It's got a rider!” the lutrani exclaimed, the wind whipping his ears.
“Who the hell rides a dragon?” Kaja leaned out of the window again, despite Aleana tugging at him to remain seated. “Brig Riv...” he continued, the dragon looming closer behind them. “Duck!”
The lutrani complied just in time, throwing himself sideways in the drivers’ seat as the dragon hurtled overhead, great talons outstretched, clawing at the air where he had been.
“Interesting?” Kaja exclaimed, quite baffled by the statement.
“It could have grabbed us, but instead, it just went for me!” the brigadier shouted over the rumble of the wheels as the dragon banked in the air. “It wants at least one of us alive! My guess is you and the princess!”
“Why? Who would...?” Aleana watched the great form loop through the air to the north.
“Freelands?” Kaja asked, leaning over to Aleana’s side of the carriage.
“I think they’d prefer you dead, milady!” Kennin called in through the window.
Aleana felt sick. “Tiernach,” she said quietly.
“Tier!” Kaja exclaimed, bracing one hand against the ceiling as the carriage jolted. “How would he have a dragon?”
“Do you know anyone else with mage training wants you captured?” Aleana demanded. “Duck!” she shouted out of the window as the whoosh of wing beats filled the carriage.
There came a clang from up front, one of the dragon’s talons bouncing off the brigadier’s armoured forearm. Scrabbling to regain control of the reins, the lutrani righted himself.
“True but... what made you say mage training?” Kaja leaned out of the other window, watching the dragon circling around again.
“A man from the Order of Magi came to see me,” Aleana said breathlessly, leaning across the leonin as the road did it’s best to throw her out of her seat. “He said that he thinks there is someone else setting up the war with the Freelands, that it had to be someone with magical abilities!”
“And you didn’t tell me?” Kaja looked at her in astonishment.
“I didn’t want to believe it!” Aleana ducked as the dragon roared overhead, its talons raking great grooves in the roof, apparently having given up on unseating the brigadier and trying instead to expose the occupants of the carriage.
“We’re not going to make it at this rate,” Kaja leaned out of the window. Ahead of them, the road passed through a small copse of trees, then it was about half a mile of open grassland to the edge of the forest. “Kennin!” he scrambled over to the other side of the carriage, pushing past Aleana. He could see the rough moonlit road surface passing in a blur of motion as he leaned out.
The vulpani quickly closed the gap between his horse and the carriage.
“Take Aleana, get to the forest. You’re small enough for one horse to carry both of you.”
“What? Kaj!” Aleana protested, tugging at his arm.
“Alley, shut up and do what I tell you!” Kaja grabbed Aleana's travelling cloak and fastened it around her shoulders. “It can’t follow us both! If we split up at least one of us will get away. Brig Riv and I will go south, you go north. Meet up at the Oakroot estate later. Now, you’re going to jump on with Kennin when we pass through those trees.” Kaja hoped Aleana wouldn't realise that this would mean that neither dragon nor rider would see the swap, and would continue to follow the carriage in preference to the rider.
Aleana nodded as Kennin kept pace beside the carriage. Kaja stuck his head out of the window. About eight seconds to the trees. Six. Four. Two, he kicked the door open. One, he grabbed Aleana, swinging her out towards the horse beside them as the trees closed in around the road. She grabbed onto the vulpani’s shoulders, swinging her leg over the back of his saddle, dropping into place behind him with an agility that Kaja hadn't really expected. Funny what you could learn about people in times of stress... But there was no time to dwell on that now.
“Keep your heads down,” he barked gruffly. “Ride fast, don’t stop until you’re under cover! Go!”
Breathlessly, Kennin nodded, digging his heels into his mount’s flanks, turning off the road and swinging towards the north, Aleana clinging tightly to his back with her cloak whipping behind her.
Standing on the forward seat, Kaja found he was able to lean out of the top of the ruined carriage. He watched the dragon behind them. It seemed to hesitate in the sky as it saw its quarry split up. With a yank of the reins, the brigadier sent the carriage lurching off the road and across the bumpy grassland, slowing them down but putting greater distance between themselves and Aleana. Its wings shining in the moonlight, the dragon turned towards them.
“It was a noble plan, Highness, well done!” the brigadier called to him over the thunder of the horses’ hooves.
“Thanks. But if it wants me alive, it better stop...” the rest of his words were lost in the roar of wings and the crunch of wood as the back half of the carriage splintered under giant claws, wood, leather and canvas tearing away. With feline reflexes, Kaja managed a panicked jump onto the seat beside the brigadier, just barely avoiding having his tail caught by the dragon's massive talons.
“I think it may have lost patience,” the brigadier suggested as a trail of splinters fell in the dragon’s wake, littering the moonlit grass.
Kaja looked to the north. “We can’t let it get us yet, it’ll have time to go after Alley!”
The brigadier looked up as the dragon banked above them, then glanced south. He tugged on the reins hard enough to force the horses to turn their heads. Panicked or not, they preferred to run in the direction they could see, and rapidly adjusted to the new heading.
“I thought we were making for the forest!” Kaja exclaimed.
“Backup plan!” the lutrani shouted. “Duck!”
The dragon's rider must have noticed that the last swoop had been somewhat risky, because this time it was the great tail that slammed into the carriage sending it skidding sideways, the horses scrambling across the grass as the brigadier grappled with the reins. Kaja turned his head to watch the dragon as it soared up and away from him.
Then the brigadier pushed him off the seat.
With an exclamation off surprise, Kaja plunged towards the ground, finding his fall rudely interrupted by a sturdy beech tree. He gasped as the wind was knocked out of him in a rush, stifled a shout as he thudded against its knobbly roots, rolling into the deep shade of the small cluster of trees. Gritting his teeth as bits of him reported extreme pain, Kaja looked up through the leaves above him, trying to work out which of the stars were in the sky and which in his head.
“And what was that?” he growled through his teeth as the shock of impact faded. “What the hell was that, Brig Riv?” his voice rose a little, but he resisted the urge to shout. Standing alone on the moor wasn't really the best place to draw the attention of a dragon.
Discovering that his legs seemed intact and working, Kaja levered himself painfully upright, staggering towards a slim birch, leaning on it as he watched the carriage continue on its way. The branches above shivered and rustled as the dragon flew overhead, the downward sweep of its wings almost brushing the topmost leaves as it fixated upon the carriage.
“No,” Kaja looked after it as it closed on the bumping carriage. “No, no, no! Turn, that’s Whitescar cliff! Turn!” Claw marks appeared in the tree bark as Kaja’s voice rose.
The carriage turned, swinging at the last possible second to follow the cliff, the dragon missing it by inches, soaring out into the dark sky.
“All right, all right, all right,” Kaja watched as the dragon arced against the stars. “Good, good, you’re nearly there. Head for the trees, you’ll make it!”
The carriage did not change course, however. Instead, it followed the edge of the cliff. The dragon swooped again, lashing the disintegrating vehicle with its tail, but somehow the brigadier kept going, resuming the race along the cliff edge.
“What are you doing?” Kaja asked through gritted teeth. “What are you doing, what are you doing, what...”
Diving in from the north, the dragon’s tail connected again with the carriage, the wheels skidding over the stony ground, one slipping over the edge. For a moment, it hung at a crazy angle, struggling to stay upright as the dragon soared away, then toppled. Circling back, the dragon pulled up, hovering in the air. Following its gaze, Kaja saw nothing but grassland and shadowed forest. Aleana and Kennin had made it. They were beyond the dragon’s sight, and safe. As, Kaja suddenly realised, was he, in the deep shadows of the copse.
The dragon rider wrenched angrily on the reins, pulling the giant head upwards. The dragon banked westwards, powerful wings rapidly gaining altitude until it disappeared into the dark sky.
Brigadier Calinan Riverthorn, bravest soldier in the king's service, had saved them all, Kaja realised. But at what price?
From the dark shadows of the forest’s edge, Aleana watched wide eyed and breathless as the carriage slipped over the cliff. For one wild moment, she almost ran forward, but a restraining hand on her shoulder held her back just long enough for her knees to fail her. Clinging to a slender alder sapling as the dragon hovered in the air by the cliff edge, she saw its blazing gaze seem to stare up the slope towards her.
It was only an illusion, however. Neither the dragon nor the rider could penetrate the darkened forest with sight alone, and it did not come swooping towards them. Instead, it banked in the sky, and flew west, apparently deciding that there was nothing more to be done.
“Kaj...” Clinging to the sapling, Aleana felt her knees buckle, sliding down the trunk, the bark biting into her palms.
“Princess Aleana?” Kennin’s soft voice came to her from the darkness. “Milady?”
“Kaj,” she bowed her head, kneeling at the base of the small tree, arms tight about it.
“Milady, I’m very sorry,” a soft vulpani hand came to rest on her shoulder as Kennin knelt beside her.
“Kaj... what am I supposed to do now? You were in charge, Kaja!” Aleana’s voice trembled as she whispered her thoughts to the night.
Kennin bowed his head. “Prince Kaja’s actions were noble, and fate has poorly rewarded him for his bravery. All we may do now is remember him in the highest honour. There is nothing you can do here. We should go. Please, milady, come now.”
Swallowing, fighting back tears, Aleana nodded. After a few deep, shaky breaths she composed herself. Pushing against the sapling, and with Kennin’s hand on her elbow, she stood, shivering in the chill night wind.
“Here,” the vulpani shrugged his coat off under his cloak, holding it out for her. “Yours was under the seat, wasn’t it.”
“Yes... thank you,” Aleana took the thickly padded velvet jacket, slipping gratefully into it and pulling her cloak tighter about her. She looked back down the slope to the cliff, the waving grass moving darkly in the moonlight, and put a hand against the sapling again, feeling weak.
“Can you ride, milady?” Kennin asked quietly. “Coppershine is very steady on his feet, and I'll lead him until we are out of the forest,” he patted the horse’s neck.
Aleana nodded vaguely, and distantly watched the vulpani help her into the saddle, taking the reins in his furry hand.
“Don’t worry, milady,” he said softly, looking up at her. “We're only a day’s ride from my father’s estate. If the dragon does not return, we will be there before nightfall tomorrow.”
“All right,” she said absently, leaning forwards in the saddle, meaning to take some of her weight on her hands, but somehow it didn’t work properly, her hands slipping down the sides of the horse’s flanks. The blanket on the horse’s broad back looked very soft as it came up to meet her.
“Milady?” Kennin sounded concerned, but it didn’t matter, Aleana decided. The blanket was soft, and the saddle was cut low at the front, allowing her to slump forward comfortably. That was the important thing. She closed her eyes, as the darkness of the night surrounded her.